Possible reasons for the decline in the volume of plastic that is getting recycled include the following:
#1 Consumer confusion at the curbside
A 2019 McKinsey & Company study found that consumers with access to curbside recycling only put 40% of recyclable plastic out for collection. The rest goes to landfills where it becomes contaminated with other materials and is no longer recyclable. The study learned that consumers cite two sources of confusion: Knowing which plastics are recyclable and which are not, and the incredible variation of recycling methods in place in even a single town or city.
#2 Single-stream recycling
Residential recycling programs that require consumers to sort recyclables can be expensive for municipalities to manage. This is why so many switched to a “single-stream” system during the 2000s. Not only is it cheaper to collect, it makes recycling easier for residents because all recyclables—plastic, glass, paper, and metal—are put into the same bin.
By 2014, 80% of Americans lived in an area where a single-stream system was in place, a 51% increase from 2005. The comingling of unlike materials makes it hard for materials recovery facilities (MRFs) to completely recycle any one of them. A 2016 report by the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I), “Reducing Contamination in Recycled Glass from Single Stream Collection,” found that this practice cut the amount of glass that gets recycled by 50%. Plastics become contaminated in this environment, too. Collection trucks smash all the materials together. Shards of glass are compacted into plastic and paper. Residues from food, like grease, also end up in the mix. The result of this is known as “dirty” recyclables.
#3 Innovation of plastic materials outpacing recycling technology
Approximately 30 percent of plastic packaging currently in use can’t be processed by most MRFs in the U.S.3 The processing technology in place at these facilities lags behind the fast-paced development of new uses of plastic for packaging that evolve to sustain market competitiveness. Some companies are working to close this gap through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The Max-AI® sorting machine from Bulk Handling Systems is one such example.
China no longer buys “dirty” plastic from the U.S.
Over the last 25 years, dirty recyclable plastic—the surplus that the U.S. couldn’t recycle—didn’t worry recycling processors. That’s because all of it went into a global waste industry worth $250 billion that was fueled almost entirely by purchasing from China.
Chinese companies imported dirty plastic as a feedstock for its burgeoning manufacturing industry. But that ended in January 2018 when China announced that it would no longer accept recycled plastic scrap that is not 99.5% pure. Bales and bales of plastic trash were left on the shores of the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere as waste haulers looked for a new buyer. Today, about half of the volume that used to go to China remains unsold, according to the website fivethirtyeight.com. That means it remains stockpiled, often outdoors, where it can leach into surrounding ecosystems.
Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, told National Geographic that China’s decision “exposes the myth that the United States is capable of dealing with its own plastics problem.”